Healthcaretimebombs in our backyar ds
increased susceptibility to the disease or even possibly that diabetes itself may act as a trigger for a latent infection to flare up. M elioidosis is increasingly being recognised as an infectious disease of global importance. The double burden of diabetes with bacterial infections, such as melioidosis and tuberculosis, represents a significant global challenge.
W ith diabetes affecting an increasing number of the world’s population, the compounding effect of co-morbidity with a bacterial epidemic or even pandemic has the potential to explode into a public health nightmare.
In a way, the state of neglect for melioidosis has parallels to our neglect of the Zika virus. W e have only recently heard of the Zika virus because it did not seem to affect us directly before. M isleading reporting and headlines give the impression that Zika is a new disease. In reality, the Zika virus had been discovered decades ago and is known to be present even in M alaysia. Unfortunately, like many things that we humans focus on, we prioritise our affairs into matters that affect us directly, and after that comes the more indirect problems. Zika didn’t seem to be causing any problems other than an annoying fever. W e didn’t even bother to test for it previously — so like fevers caused by other viruses that we consider not worthy of mentioning, we had just lumped it into the “viral fever” category. But more recent events have attracted our attention — this disease was starting to be a problem.
The question is — had it always been so and we simply did not notice it, or did the virus evolve the capacity to cause more serious damage to humans? The point that I am trying to make is simple — we need to take proactive measures and learn from the past to plan for the future.
I started off with melioidosis because like Zika, many of us may have never heard of it until it is perhaps too late. However, diseases like melioidosis are largely ignored because they are not yet problems, not big enough yet anyway. W hat is the cut-off point for us to start reacting? Ten lives? A hundred? Or should the toll reach an even thousand first? W e can do much better than simply reacting to epidemics in panic. W e should be ready to meet such challenges head on. This can only be achieved through intensified research into such diseases.
Previous outbreaks, such as SARS, M ERS, Ebola and Zika managed to escape local containment and spread globally, have shown how unprepared the world health care system and infrastructure is when it comes to responding to infectious disease outbreaks. Earlier this year, Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of M icrosoft, announced the launch of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations at the W orld Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. This multinational government-backed coalition’s mission is to finance research efforts aimed at preventing future epidemics for known and even yet unknown diseases. As a nation that can be greatly affected and is in the direct firing line of many infectious disease outbreaks, we should take steps to participate in such initiatives.
M elioidosis and other such rare or neglected infectious diseases that are in our backyards is our problem first and now. The melioidosis bacteria was actually first identified in Kuala Lumpur. It is one area that we can lead the world in and be the solutions providers to a potential global problem. So for those health care time bombs in our backyards, do we react to the carnage or should we start working to defuse them?
The writer is a bioinformatician and molecular biologist with the Faculty of Science and Technology and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Systems Biology, Universiti Kebangsaan M alaysia. Email him at firdaus@ mfrlab.org